China Conversations

Julia Lovell: Translating China’s Past10 min read

Jonathan Chatwin talks to the award-winning historian and translator


Julia Lovell is Professor of Modern China at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is the author of The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature, The Great Wall, and The Opium War. She is also a translator of Chinese fiction; her translations include The Real Story of Ah Q and Other Tales of China by Lu Xun and Serve the People by Yan Lianke. She writes about China for several newspapers, including The Guardian, Financial Times, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Writer Jonathan Chatwin talked to her about her route into studying China, the relationship between translation and writing history, and how she approached the researching of the global stories in her new book Maoism.

What first drew you towards studying Chinese at university? Had you had exposure to Chinese language and culture before then?

As an undergraduate at Cambridge, I made the decision to switch from History to Chinese Studies in 1995. Chinese was still very unknown to me at that point, and I had had zero exposure to Chinese language and culture before I made the decision. In the early 1990s, if an East Asian language was taught at a UK school, it was mostly Japanese, and that was rare enough. But it was as an undergraduate in History that I first studied a little modern Chinese history. My mother also put into my hands a book that was hugely influential in the 1990s in introducing stories of modern China, Jung Chang’s family memoir Wild Swans. I read it in a weekend and decided that I needed to know more about China, and the best way to go about it was to learn Chinese. Pretty much the next week, I asked my tutor how I could change subject. Learning Chinese was an incredible experience: intensive tuition in contemporary, modern and classical Chinese, from dedicated, expert teachers. I owe them so much.

You’ve written books on a diverse range of topics, including the Opium War, China’s quest to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, and now the global impact of Maoism. How would you define your field, and how do you go about choosing your projects?

I agree that the topics look diverse, but I think they are unified thematically by an interest in the way that China’s interactions with the world beyond its borders have shaped both China and other parts of the world. For various reasons, through the 19th and 20th centuries, Western observers often viewed Chinese culture as sui generis, isolated from the rest of the world. As a result, the extent and importance of China’s global interactions were often neglected by general histories. Very broadly, I’ve tried to choose projects that help write China back into global history. Ideas for projects have come along in unpredictable ways. The Opium War book was the idea of my agent, Toby Eady, who very sadly died at the end of 2017. The Nobel Prize project came to me through a single sentence in a presentation I heard as an undergraduate. The thinking for global Maoism developed slowly after I read Shirley Maclaine’s very strange memoir of a six-week tour around China in the early 1970s that inspired her to star in a one-woman cabaret in Las Vegas.

PULLQUOTE: The extent and importance of China’s global interactions have been neglected by general histories”

You’ve also translated fiction from Chinese to English. Are these two separate intellectual pursuits for you – historian and translator – or do you find they profitably influence one another?

I was quite a bookish child, and thanks to encouragement from my parents and teachers, I loved reading French and Spanish literature in the original. So the idea of working between non-Anglophone literatures and English always seemed very natural. When I started my doctoral work on Chinese anxiety about winning a Nobel Prize in Literature, I quickly realised that translation, and the international politics and economics of publishing, played a huge role in determining influence in world literature. I wanted to understand and experience how the translation and publication process between Chinese and English worked in practice. In order to analyse the attitudes of Chinese writers towards the Nobel Prize in my PhD, I had to interview many of China’s best-known writers, which brought me into contact with some of China’s most intriguing and complex literary minds. Three of my translation projects came out of those meetings, which gave me an invaluable overview of contemporary Chinese writing.

As for the relationship between historical writing and translation, I find them wholly complementary. Both are based on the same skills, and close engagement with primary sources. Translation obliges the translator to carry out the closest possible reading of a text; to consider why the author made every choice that they did. By focusing so closely on a text, a translator becomes not only steeped in the insights into history, society and culture that the content of a literary work offers, but also learns a great deal about history, society and culture through the way that language works. I’ve also quoted from literary texts that I’ve translated in my historical writing, to illustrate or evoke particular points.

You’re currently working on an abridged version of Journey to the West. Could you tell us a little about that project, and the rationale behind the new translation?

John Siciliano, an exceptionally cosmopolitan senior editor at Penguin Classics US, and I decided that a new, single-volume abridgement of Journey to the West would meet several needs. Naturally, language changes, and the last translations of this Chinese classic into English were completed in the 1980s, with many even earlier such as Arthur Waley’s 1942 abridgment Monkey. Talking to colleagues who teach Chinese and comparative literature, I realised there was great enthusiasm for a new, up-to-date single-volume translation that could be used for students of world literature. Translated in full, as it was by the remarkable Anthony Yu, Journey to the West fills four large volumes. Above all, John and I wanted a chance to bring new constituencies of non-specialist readers, through a new translation, to the splendid inventiveness of a novel that is a cornerstone of East Asian literary culture, the stature of which in Asia may be compared with that of The Canterbury Tales or Don Quixote.

Maoism: A Global History examines the influence of Maoist thought on a diverse range of countries: Peru, Nepal, Vietnam, India and many more. How did you begin to research a story with as vast a global reach as Maoism?

The methods are essentially the same as for a project with a smaller scope. You begin by immersing yourself in existing histories, to work out where are the gaps, inconsistencies, or points of contention in what has been written before. This helps form your research questions, which are all-important: given the vastness of the topic’s scope, I had to learn to read selectively and with my research questions in mind. At the same time, you work out who are the most important people to talk to: who knows about the subject, who can tell you more about the interesting questions, the best archives, the most valuable oral histories? You study the references in existing histories: they take you to other books, and to primary sources. And when an opportunity comes along – to travel, to meet someone, to visit an archive, to make a connection – you just have to seize it and squirrel away the information you glean, even if you don’t have time to write it up for the moment. As you read the primary sources with your research questions in mind, sometimes you don’t get the answers you expect, and your questions change. I did all that for about 4 years, and was very fortunate to get a British Academy fellowship than enabled me to finish the research and write it all up.

Can you talk a little about your organisation process when researching? How do you physically marshal your material?

With Maoism: A Global History, the organizational process ended up being quite simple. I divided the work into different national case-studies (France; Italy; West Germany; Peru; India; Nepal; etc.) and placed documents, notes and chapters within appropriately named folders, both virtual and physical. As I became more familiar with the material through reading and writing, I started to trace transnational links and comparisons between individual case-studies, and the national boundaries between different bodies of material began to break down.

Archival access to materials from the Mao era has become dramatically more restricted since around 2012”

Unfortunately, I’m not a tidy person – by the end of the writing process, most surfaces in my office were covered by something related to global Maoism. My reading lists in particular began to get out of control: I developed a bad habit of scribbling titles and classmarks on pieces of paper and hoarding them if I hadn’t got round to reading the works in question – there was always so much I wanted and needed to read. And mentioned, I seized opportunities to travel and meet people when they came along (my three children are now aged between 6 and 15, but they were a fair bit younger while I was doing the research, so I didn’t have a lot of flexibility over the timing of my research trips). As a result, I didn’t often have the time to consolidate the material I was gathering through thorough note-taking and writing up. That had to wait for the final writing push in the last year.

How much of your research relies on Chinese archives? Have you found access to the information you need in China becoming more restricted in recent years?

For obvious reasons, with Maoism: A Global History, I used a great number of sources from outside China: from Germany, France, Peru, Africa, Vietnam, the Netherlands, and many other places. However, there are huge quantities of relevant materials in China that were either reclassified while I was doing the research, or which have never been made available to researchers: many aspects of Mao-era China’s international outreach remain topics of great political sensitivity in China. Personal experience and anecdotal evidence indicate that archival access to materials from the Mao era has become dramatically more restricted since around 2012. It would have been enormously helpful to access the Central Liaison Department archives – the very secretive department that, under Mao, was in charge of all-important relations between the Chinese Communist Party and non-Chinese Communist parties. But political sensitivities mean that this archive will, most likely, not be opened unless the Chinese Communist Party itself falls from power.

Where do you think are the biggest gaps in historical research on modern China? What are the underexplored areas?

I’ll answer that question for Anglophone research, to keep my response within manageable bounds. Because there are still relatively few people trained in using classical and modern Chinese – compared with those working with materials in English or other European languages – there’s always so much more that can be explored, explained and communicated in English, in practically every period. Above all, I hope to see more and more work that draws out individual responses and experiences: work that continues to, in the words of R. Kent Guy, “populate [the Chinese past] with real people.”

What’s your next project?

I’m currently returning to the late Qing, for a project that focuses on material culture – including print, painting, calligraphy, ceramics, textiles, architecture and photography– as a way of evoking the dislocations, traumas and innovations of China’s 19th century. This is exciting to me because I’ve so far worked predominantly as a textual historian, and I’m very inspired by the scope that material history holds for illuminating lived experience, especially that of groups neglected or marginalised by the textual record. As I read and research, I’m realising how much I don’t know about China in the 19th century, especially about individual responses to that century’s convulsions. I’m relishing the opportunity to fill in as many of the gaps in my understanding as possible. ∎

Recommended reading:
Odd Arne Westad, The Cold War: A World History (Penguin: Allen Lane)
William Rowe, China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing
Anthony C. Yu, The Journey to the West (4 volumes)
Alpa Shah, Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas
Aditya Adhikari, The Bullet and the Ballotbox